China managed to successfully land their unmanned Jade Rabbit (Yutu) rover on the moon at 1:11 p.m. UTC on Saturday, representing the first time a wheeled vehicle has graced the lunar surface since the 1970s.
The Jade Rabbit vehicle drove off from its landing module and onto the volcanic plain of Sinus Iridum (a.k.a. the Bay of Rainbows) – a relatively flat and featureless region of mare-filled materials that receives plenty of sunlight. The area was actually formed by a large impact event, which was subsequently swamped with basaltic lava flow.
As the rocket-assisted soft landing was executed successfully, state television proudly showcased footage of scientists celebrating the momentous occasion, before unveiling images of the moon’s surface. China becomes the third country to have achieved such a feat, behind the United States and Russia, with the previous lunar landing having taken place in 1976, as part of Russia’s Luna 24 mission.
As part of the Chang’e 3 lunar exploration mission, conducted by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the Chang’e 3 probe was launched atop a Long March 3B rocket. The rocket and its payload were launched on Dec. 1, 2013, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern Sichuan province.
The probe then entered a circular lunar orbit at an altitude of 62 miles on Dec. 6, 2013, before proceeding to perform a soft landing.
The 1,200 kilogram lander serves a dual purpose; aside from landing the rover, it is also a technology demonstrator. The lander is fitted with a radioisotope heater unit (RHU), allowing critical subsystems and components to remain at a suitable temperature, whilst an array of solar panels help to power the equipment.
The lander also encompasses a telescope that will survey the celestial bodies of space. An ultraviolet camera, meanwhile, will observe Earth and its plasmasphere – a region of the Earth’s magnetosphere that consists of low energy plasma, situated just above the ionosphere.
It is anticipated the lander will operate for a duration of one year, whereas Jade Rabbit will function for just three months. During the 14-day lunar nights – temperatures of which reach as low as 180 degrees below zero Celsius – both lander and rover will be placed into sleep mode.
The six-wheeled, 120 kilogram rover was developed at the Shanghai Aerospace System Engineering Institute, with construction finalized in 2010. As with the lander, Jade Rabbit’s daily activities will be powered by a solar panel. The rover houses a series of advanced technologies, including a ground-penetrating radar, several spectrometers, two panoramic cameras and navigation and hazard avoidance cameras. Affixed to its underside, the ground-penetrating radar facilitates investigation of the structure of lunar soil and crust. Meanwhile, infrared and alpha particle X-ray spectrometers are set to study the constituents of lunar samples.
According to Chinese astronomers, the mission presents a number of key opportunities, ranging from implementation of new technologies to gathering scientific knowledge and scouring the moon for precious resources that could, one day, be mined. According to BBC News, Sun Huixian, a space engineer working for the Chinese Lunar program, offered the following thoughts on the country’s space ambitions:
“China’s lunar programme is an important component of mankind’s activities to explore [the] peaceful use of space.”
In 2017, China aims to coordinate another mission to the moon, as part of Chinese lunar exploration mission Chang’e 5; rock and soil samples will be acquired during the mission. Ultimately, in a bid to advance the country’s space program, officials have articulated their desire to launch a space station by 2023 and even institute lunar bases, further down the line.
Yongchun Zheng, a space scientist working for the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, published a report in the journal Planetary and Space Science, entitled China’s Lunar Exploration Program: Present and Future. Zheng emphasized the importance of lunar exploration for promoting the “innovation and development” for applied science, whilst stimulating the interests of future generations.
By James Fenner